Sydney's spectacular dust storms remind Australians of their history.

Sydney's spectacular dust storms remind Australians of their history.

Sydney's spectacular dust storms remind Australians of their history.

A wartime lexicon.
Oct. 12 2009 1:37 PM

Dust in the Wind

Sydney's spectacular storms remind Australians of their history.

Australia during a sand storm. Click image to expand.
A dust storm blankets the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia

SYDNEY, Australia This wondrous city awoke last month to find that it was experiencing any metaphor you like, from "darkness at dawn" to "red dawn." A gigantic cloud of dust had blown in from the interior, shrouding the capital of New South Wales in a sinister and choking mist of particles. A completely sane friend and editor of mine said that he thought for a few moments that the North Koreans had finally succumbed to a death wish and decided to obliterate Down Under as a dress rehearsal. A taxi driver hailing from Serbia was more phlegmatic, telling me that for once he was glad of the lack of rain, because if it had come down while the air was full of this matter, the whole place would have been waist deep in mud. But the wind brought it, and the wind bore it away—dumping some dust as far away as New Zealand—and the experience would have been fairly easily forgotten if not for the nagging fact that no meteorologist or climatologist had come anywhere close to predicting what, in retrospect, had evidently been brewing for some time.

The Lucky Country was the title of a celebrated 1964 book about Australia by Donald Horne. It seemed to say that Australia was a fortunate place—lots of natural resources, a good distance between itself and the wars of other continents, a dry and invigorating climate, a spirited and enterprising people. In fact, as with that other title The Ugly American (which actually describes a charming and humane and brave American in Southeast Asia), the fate of the book was to have its title taken literally when it was intended to be ironic. Horne intended the implication of a country that was living off a happy-go-lucky illusion of its own making.

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Later authors such as Robert Hughes have inked in some of the darker side, from the original prisoner-slave colonies that populated the coastal areas to the near annihilation of the ancient peoples who are lumped together under the anthropological definition of Aboriginal. But Australia still has a lucky feel to it. (I speak as one who was recently invited to lecture at the Sydney Opera House. I had not thought of myself as spectacularly fat until I made my appearance, but it remains the case that the audience would not leave until I had sung. True fact.) The country has been almost immunized from the recent international economic slump, because its principal currency-earning export is iron ore, and as long as the gigantic mines keep digging it up, the Chinese will carry on buying it. The population is booming and young, with a large wave of talented immigrants from Asia who have changed the face of the big cities and helped make them the rivals of anywhere for cuisine and fashion and movies.

However, nature remains boss, as she does everywhere. If Australia were truly lucky, it would have an interior and navigable river system like the Mississippi-Missouri. As it is, all the real centers of population are beside the ocean, and a whole continent supports about 22 million people. These people may not think very often about the outback, and nor of course does the outback think about them, but deserts have a way of recalling themselves to the attention of the urbanites. Thus the twinge of last month's hectic and somber sunrise, the gift of the vast wilderness at the heart of the continent.

As a lad I read Nevil Shute's novel of apocalypse On the Beach, later made into a brilliant but now forgotten post-nuclear-war movie by Stanley Kramer. It showed Australians, hitherto body-guarded by the huge expanses of surrounding sea, as they became the last humans to succumb to the radioactive poisons borne on the wind from World War III in the northern hemisphere. Some consciousness of this tale evidently survives in the national psyche. The immense solitudes of the Australian interior (solitudes, that is, except to the Aboriginal population) were employed as proving grounds in the 1950s for the senior British partner's race to build and test a nuclear bomb. The haunted place-names Woomera and Maralinga became associated with experiments in space-age weaponry being conducted upon peoples from epochs before the West knew how to keep records. Perhaps I should have said conscience rather than consciousness in the sentence above—many Australians told me they feared that polluted dirt from those other menacing clouds of a half- century ago was now being "blown back," as it were, not just into the cities but across the Great Barrier Reef and into the deep ocean, where it would sink down and eventually work its way into the plankton.

There's no absolutely firm evidence about this, but the huge dust storms that have been hitting China, Iraq, and East Africa are thought by some experts to be harbingers of worse than just deforestation, dust bowls, and further drought. It also seems probable that they can carry alarming diseases such as meningitis among humans in Africa and foot-and-mouth among animals in Britain. (Saharan dust is now reportedly being blown far north of the Alps—last year the British Meteorological Office detected it in "old" South Wales.) There is also the problem of soot, which is thought by some to be the cause of the shrinkage of the Himalayan glaciers, coated in fine carbon particles that have reduced their ability to reflect back the warming rays of the sun. As with all arguments that touch on climate change, it's hard to be sure whether the seemingly mounting occurrence of massive dust storms reflects an upward trend or a cyclical one (Sydney had a storm like this in the 1940s), or just better reporting. But the increasing probability is that dust from somewhere you hardly ever think about is on its way to somewhere near you.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.